DES MOINES, IA -- The bomb thrower vs. the consensus builder.
Mr. Bombastic vs. Mr. Cautious.
With three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, those differences between Republican front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are shaping up to be the central contrast in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
And they help explain, in part, why Gingrich is soaring in the polls and why Romney is slipping. After all, in the Age of Obama, Republican primary voters -- more and more -- seem to prefer confrontation over caution and rhetorical red meat over nuance.
That confrontation-vs.-nuance contrast was on display at Saturday night's GOP debate here in Iowa, where Romney took issue with Gingrich’s past statement that Palestinians were “invented” people who might not have a legitimate claim to statehood.
“We're not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot when our friends, the Israelis, would probably say, ‘What in the world are you doing?’” Romney said.
“[If] I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability,” he added. “I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.”
Gingrich had a different response, saying that Israel is under siege from the Palestinians.
“I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire.”
Gingrich continued, “I am a Reaganite, I'm proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.”
So there’s your Republican presidential race for now (and perhaps for the next several months): Romney’s sobriety and stability vs. Gingrich’s calling it like he sees it.
And according to the polls, Republicans -- especially conservatives and Tea Party supporters -- are siding with Gingrich.
In the recent NBC-Marist poll showing Gingrich ahead of Romney in Iowa, Tea Party supporters (who make up about half of all likely GOP caucus-goers) overwhelmingly break for the former House speaker, 32% to 11%.
Ditto the new NBC-Marist polls of South Carolina and Florida, where Gingrich leads Romney among Tea Party Republicans by more than 30 percentage points.
Even in New Hampshire, the only early nominating state where Romney leads Gingrich, the two men are tied among Tea Party backers, per a recent NBC-Marist poll.
As one neutral Iowa Republican political observer tells First Read, Romney is “shy and timid when we want bold and bombast.”
“Newt Gingrich is running … as the strong guy, not the cautious guy,” Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos said on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday. “That means he can get out there and say, ‘Look, your house is burning down, I'm the fireman. You don't care where I slept last night or what I did. Let me put out the fire. You need me on that wall.’”
Observations from Iowa
To be sure, Romney throws out plenty of red meat in his stump speech and during debates.
“I'm concerned that our president doesn't really understand that America,” Romney said at town hall in Cedar Rapids, IA, on Friday. “I'm concerned that our president means what he says when he says he wants to fundamentally transform America. There's nothing wrong with America that needs transforming.”
“He seems to be taking America on a course towards Europe,” Romney added. “We need a president that doesn't want to make us more like Europe. We need a president that wants to make us more like America.”
And at Saturday’s debate, Romney stated, “It's a shame that we've got a president who thinks that being hands-on in the economy means working on his golf [game].”
But, compared with Gingrich, Romney's rhetoric seems forced and unnatural.
At Saturday’s opening of his campaign headquarters outside of Des Moines, Gingrich vowed that his campaign wouldn’t air negative TV ads.
“We're not going to engage in tearing people down,” he said. “And if anybody does go out and creates any kind of Super PAC using my name, if they run any negative ads, we will attack them and we will encourage people to give them no money.”
Note those words again: “We will attack them.”
GOP rhetoric over the past three years
So why are Republican voters preferring -- at least right now -- the bombastic Gingrich over the more cautious Romney? Just look at the political rhetoric over the past three years.
If Republicans and conservatives criticize President Obama's desire to look out for the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians -- a position shared by past presidents, Democratic and Republican alike -- as "throwing Israel under the bus," then it naturally follows they would applaud a presidential candidate calling Palestinians “invented.”
And if they view a federal health-care law -- that uses private insurers and the marketplace, that doesn't contain a public option, and that utilizes a mandate once embraced by conservatives -- as “socialism” or a government takeover of health care, then it’s logical they’d be suspicious of the nearly identical health-care reform Romney signed into law in Massachusetts.
As today’s Republican Party favors confrontation over caution and red meat over nuance, you can see why Gingrich is thriving and why Romney is struggling.
NBC’s Morgan Parmet contributed to this article.